'Heroes' at the Wall

Music fans in East Berlin are prevented from getting too close to the Berlin Wall on June 9, 1987, to hear Bowie perform.  (AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Among the many tributes to David Bowie this morning, one that caught my eye was from the German Foreign Ministry:

“Heroes,” of course, is the great—certainly my favorite—Bowie song from the 1977 album of the same name. That record, along with Low and Lodger, make up his Berlin Trilogy, but it’s the only one he recorded in the city—and it’s that song, “Heroes,” that became an anthem in divided Berlin.

The song itself is perhaps best known for this verse:

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

The “wall” in question was of course the Berlin Wall, which divided the city at the time. Bowie initially maintained that the song’s protagonists were an anonymous couple who would meet by the Berlin Wall, but in 2003 he told Performing Songwriter the song was inspired by Tony Visconti, the record producer:

I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.

But it’s what he said next about performing the song in West Berlin in 1987 that really touches on what rock ‘n’ roll meant to people around the world before the Wall fell:

I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did “Heroes” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.

You can watch that performance below (and, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can watch the full concert here).

Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and Bowie performed his music—and that song—in a unified city. He last played there in 2004.